Trust: the fuel of transition

I’ve been learning a lot about transition lately—specifically, the sort of transition in congregational leadership or direction that’s inevitable, and that we need to get a lot more prepared for. A few weeks ago, I attended the Messianic Leadership Roundtable in Phoenix, generously hosted by Jewish Voice Ministries, with over 300 other leaders from across the Messianic Jewish spectrum, and most of it was about navigating change and transition. I’ve also read some excellent books on the topic lately, including The Elephant in the Boardroom: Speaking the Unspoken about Pastoral Transitions, by Carolyn Weese and J Russell Crabtree (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004).

The logistics of transition are vital—identifying and equipping new leaders, laying out a plan and preparing to execute it—but I’d like to emphasize what I call the fuel of transition, which is interpersonal trust. You can have a great plan, and all the right resources, but if people involved in transition don’t trust each other, it’s not going to work. Weese and Crabtree comment on changing our approach to transition:

All the research is clear. A different cognitive understanding of an issue does not produce change. Only when a person or group of people are able to explore their ideas in a safe environment does change become possible. In other words, change is first a spiritual issue before it is an informational one. (Elephant, p. 198)

The spiritual issue here is trust. It’s what defines a “safe environment.”

We tend to think of trust in black-and-white terms; we either have it or we don’t. But it’s more helpful, and probably more accurate, to think of it incrementally, like fuel in a tank. If the fuel tank of trust runs out, the whole transition process begins to sputter, then fail, and finally crash and burn. Like fuel, the trust supply can be burned up and depleted, but it can also be replenished.

It’s amazing how much we can accomplish when there’s an atmosphere of trust—and how frustrating it is trying to lead when there’s a lack of trust. One thing we leaders need to remember, though, is that the tank doesn’t get refilled just by saying, “Trust me.” You can’t demand trust. Trust must be earned, which often takes hard work and sacrifice. And you also have to give the other person the chance to earn it. Trust must be extended, which often requires forgiveness and the will to take a risk.

The story of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers reveals this dynamic of extending trust and earning trust, and sheds light on how we can restore or deepen trust in our own communities, especially through the transitions that lie ahead of us.

If you’re not familiar with all the details of the story, you can read it starting in Genesis 37. Joseph is the favorite of his father, which leads his brothers to reject him and send him into slavery in Egypt. Eventually Joseph rises from slavery to be the second-in-command of all Egypt, executing his plan to save Egypt and the surrounding nations from famine through storing and distributing food. Joseph’s brothers finally go down to Egypt to get food, and they appear before Joseph, whom they don’t recognize. Joseph questions them and learns that his father is still alive, as is his younger brother, Benjamin, who wasn’t there with the rest of the brothers. Benjamin, like Joseph, is the son of Jacob’s favored wife, Rachel. Joseph finds a way to test the brothers’ attitude toward the (new) favored son, Benjamin, which ultimately reveals their attitude toward the father who has chosen him. Joseph extends enough trust to give the brothers a chance to prove themselves, paradoxically by accusing them of coming to Egypt as spies. When they deny it, he says,

By this you shall be put to the test: unless your youngest brother comes here, by Pharaoh, you shall not depart from this place! Let one of you go and bring your brother, while the rest of you remain confined, that your words may be put to the test whether there is truth in you. (Gen 42:14-16)

We might think Joseph is just playing with his brothers, giving them their payback for how they treated him, but actually he’s testing them to see if he can trust them enough to reveal himself to them. Joseph extends trust, that is, he provides an opportunity for the brothers to earn some trust to add to their completely depleted fuel tank, and the brothers take the first step by showing real remorse.

They said to one another, “Truly, we are guilty on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.” Then Reuben spoke up and said to them, “Didn’t I tell you, ‘Do no wrong to the boy’? But you paid no heed. Now comes the reckoning for his blood.” They did not know that Joseph understood, for there was an interpreter between him and them. He turned away from them and wept. (Gen. 42:21-24)

This is not the usual “I’m sorry if you were offended” sort of apology. The brothers recognize in detail their wrongdoing, and they see its connection with their current circumstances. Joseph can’t act on this remorse alone, but it is a first step in earning trust. In our own process of trust, we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that remorse alone should earn trust—or that others should trust us simply because we’ve shown remorse. But remorse is only a step, and has to be followed by action.

Instead of confining the brothers and letting one return home, Joseph confines just one, Simeon, and lets all the rest return home. It’s another test: Will they come back with Benjamin, or let Simeon end up as a slave, just as they let Joseph end up as a slave? As it turns out, the brothers want to return, but Jacob hesitates to send Benjamin with them. Finally, Judah takes on the responsibility for Benjamin’s return. He makes a commitment, not a blasé “don’t worry about it,” or a wild and overblown offer such as Reuben makes when he tells Jacob that he can kill his sons if he doesn’t return with Benjamin (Gen. 42:37). In contrast, Judah earns Jacob’s trust (and gains the chance to earn Joseph’s) with a clear, specific, and believable commitment: “I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever” (Gen. 43:9).

In counseling couples who are seeking restoration in their marriage, I sometimes suggest that they ask each other, “What I can do to earn more of your trust?” or tell their spouse specifically what he or she could do to earn some trust. Extending trust means defining a way that the other can earn trust. Likewise, I often suggest to one spouse (usually the husband) that he make a specific, measurable commitment and follow through. This simple combination of clear commitment, even on something minor, and follow-through is a potent way to replenish the fuel tank of trust. These principles apply not just in marriage, but wherever trust is running low, including a group processing transition.

By making this sort of commitment, Judah steps forward from the band of remorseful brothers, and enables Jacob to send Benjamin to Egypt. There he will take another step, which will refill the trust tank to the full.

After the brothers arrive in Egypt, Joseph sets things up so that Benjamin is about to be taken into captivity. Judah, because of the commitment he made, offers himself in exchange. It’s at this point that Joseph finally extends enough trust to reveal himself to his brothers, in his unforgettable words, Ani Yosef, ha-od avi chai—I am Joseph, does my father yet live? (Gen. 45:3).

The greatest trust-building measure is the one that costs us. You can’t just say you’re sorry, even if you say this in deep and authentic remorse, and you can’t just commit to change, even if it’s a clear and measurable commitment. You have to pay whatever price the commitment demands. Only now does Joseph know that he can trust his brothers to put the well-being of the family, and honor of their father, ahead of themselves.

The story of Joseph and his brothers is not exactly about congregational transition, but there’s a common thread here, the issue of trust, and the power of self-denial to replenish trust. Remember, though, it’s not just any act of self-denial that will gain trust, but self-denial for the higher purpose. The whole question before Joseph is whether his brothers will accept and support and defend the choice of their father. They rejected Joseph as the one chosen of the father; will they now pay the price for Benjamin, the one chosen of the father in Joseph’s place?

Judah earns trust because he puts the father’s purpose ahead of his own—a great lesson for us. Joseph extends trust because of Judah’s response, and because he knows that ultimately God is in control, so he can risk trusting the other.

“God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God. . .” Gen. 45:7–8


2 thoughts on “Trust: the fuel of transition”

  1. Russ,
    Interesting application of the Joseph story. Regarding trust in congregational change, it seems worthwhile to identify the issues that would build up or tear down trust. Having never gone through such a change, I’d like to hear what others say.


  2. Thanks Barry, I can list some key issues and perhaps others will suggest more.

    First, for the outgoing leader, can he trust the Board, the transition team, the incoming leader to maintain the vision that he’s served, perhaps for many years? Rabbis and congregational leaders are often visionaries, and have often paid a big price to establish their vision within the community. It’s hard to let go, especially if the trust reserves are running low.

    On the other hand, can the Board and the new leader trust that the outgoing leader really is going to let go–or will he maintain a core of congregants personally loyal to him, even if he’s moved out of town? Can they trust the outgoing leader enough to really hear his advice and counsel without feeling like they have to defend against it?

    Is there enough trust between members of the community that they work together to meet the inevitable challenges of transition–like a loss of membership or a financial downturn–without resorting to blame and accusation?

    Etc. etc.

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